Speaking the Truth in Love

When the Perfect Comes

Image result for 1 Corinthians 13:8Paul told the Corinthians that “love never ends; as for prophecy, it will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.” (1 Cor. 13:8). What are “tongues”? The only narrative in the Bible describing tongues in detail was written by Luke: “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. […] And they were amazed and wondered, saying, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?’” The apostles spoke in tongues. The apostles spoke native languages that they had never studied or learned. The gift of tongues is the miraculous ability to speak in languages foreign to the speaker but known to the inhabitants of the region where the language is commonly used.

Based on instructions about tongues, charismatics define the gift in terms that contradict this plain narrative. But their misinterpretations arise from a failure to acknowledge the context in which Paul’s instructions appear. For example, Paul said that “if I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor. 13:1). Does this mean (as some claim) that tongue-speakers can preach in a heavenly language? No. This is hyperbole. In the very next verse Paul said that “if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (v. 2). Did gifted Christians in Corinth literally remove mountains? No. Did they literally speak in the tongues of angels? No. Hyperbole is an exaggeration used for emphasis. To speak “in the tongues of men and of angels” is to be highly gifted and eloquent.

Another misinterpreted text appears in 1 Corinthians 14. Paul said that “one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit” (v. 2). Supposedly, this means that a person speaking in tongues is communicating in a language not known to humankind. Not so. At Corinth the brothers were interrupting each other, talking at the same time, and speaking languages unknown to the audience. If I delivered a Chinese sermon in China, the language would be known to my audience there. But if I presented the same message in Seagoville, Texas, my audience would glean nothing from it. I would be speaking “not to men but to God.”

However tongues may be defined (as gibberish or native languages), the Bible says that this gift “will cease” (1 Cor. 13:8). Somehow, the gift of tongues is inferior: “For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away” (1 Cor. 13:9-10). That is, the knowledge, and prophecy of the infant church were incomplete.

Image result for John 16:13In what sense was this true? Did the Holy Spirit fail to communicate truth essential to the salvation and growth of the infant church? That possibility is unthinkable. Jesus told the apostles that “when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). Surely, it was the method of communication that could be improved on. Moffatt’s translation reads: For we only know bit by bit, and we only prophesy bit by bit; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will be superseded” (1 Cor. 13:9-10). The Corinthians were conceited about their spiritual gifts. But the shortcomings of this mode of communication were apparent (14:27-40). Besides, what the church needed more than all else was love (“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. […] Make love your aim (13:1, 14:1).

Prophecy will pass away. Tongues will cease. Supernatural revelations of knowledge will end. But when? “But when the perfect comes,” the Bible says, “the imperfect will pass away” (1 Cor. 13:10).

But what is “the perfect”? The most common explanation is that Paul refers to the complete knowledge to be enjoyed in heaven. This theory allows for the continuance of spiritual gifts in modern times. But the last verse of 1 Corinthians 13 presents a serious problem for this view: “So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” In this chapter Paul contrasts the temporary nature of spiritual gifts with the abiding nature of these three great Christian virtues. Now here’s the problem: Faith and hope won’t continue in heaven. As long as we are away from the Lord, “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). But when we are at home with the Lord, we will surely walk by sight, not by faith. And hope? In hope “we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?” (Rom. 8:24). In heaven we will rejoice not in hope but in its fruition.

Thus, “the perfect” can’t be the complete knowledge enjoyed in heaven. The “bit by bit” revelations were soon coming to an end, but faith and hope would continue as long as the earth stands. “The perfect” comes to replace the partial while the church is still in this world, still experiencing the blessings of faith and hope.

Image result for perfectWhat, then, is “the perfect”? “The perfect” (to teleion) can mean “the complete thing.” For this reason some understand “the perfect” as a reference to the completion of the New Testament writings. Paul himself speaks of the coming fullness of knowledge: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood” (1 Cor. 13:12). The metal mirrors of Paul’s day reflected images poorly. Perhaps he is suggesting that the church will see the big picture more clearly at the completion of the sacred writings.

It’s certainly true that the author of Hebrews speaks of the age of spiritual gifts as if it were passing away. “How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?” he asked. “It was declared at first by the lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard him, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his own will” (Heb. 2:3-4). Here the Bible speaks of the revelation of the Gospel as occurring in at least two stages. First, the Lord preached it. Then eyewitnesses declared what they had seen and heard. The Holy Spirit confirmed their words by giving them miraculous gifts. Perhaps the past tense verbs in this chapter point to a third stage that was soon to come—the completion of the NT writings and the accompanying end of the age of spiritual gifts.

“The perfect,” then, may be the completion of the New Testament Scriptures. A possible weakness of this view may be that spiritual gifts almost certainly didn’t end instantly at the completion of the Bible in AD 96 (the year Revelation was written on Patmos). However, nothing in 1 Corinthians 13 demands an abrupt end of spiritual gifts. The supernatural revelations could easily have ceased in a gradual manner.

“The perfect” (to teleion) can also mean “the mature thing.” This idea, too, is supported by the immediate context in 1 Corinthians 13: When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways” (v. 11). In AD 55 (when 1 Cor. was written), the church was in its infancy. But in time the church would reach a more mature stage of development.

Does this mean that the church would be free of immature members? Of course not. But with some history under its belt and a complete written revelation of God’s will in its hand, the church is in a better position to sustain lasting growth and resist the battering winds of false teaching. Didn’t Paul say this very thing in Ephesians 4:7-16, a passage very similar to 1 Corinthians 12:1-14:40?

Image result for christian maturityBoth of these passages written by Paul speak of the church as the body of Christ. Both mention the gifts equipping the early church for service. Both emphasize the need for building up the church. And both indicate that spiritual gifts were intended for a designated period: “And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers […] until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:11, 13). But isn’t Paul speaking of the church’s perfect state in heaven? He can’t be. The maturity Paul had in mind was to protect the church from corrupt men (“So that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles” (Eph. 4:14)). Will the cunning of deceitful men threaten the church in heaven? No. The maturity Paul was thinking of, the maturity that would see the end of spiritual gifts, was to occur while the church was still on earth.

In 1 Corinthians 13 Paul doesn’t specify what “the perfect” is. Probably, the Corinthians had heard him speak of it in person and thus knew a little bit more about the subject than the modern Bible reader does. However, comparing 1 Corinthians 13 with Ephesians 4 leads to the conclusion that spiritual gifts were given in the church’s infancy and that they were to be withdrawn as the church matured in experience and knowledge. The completion of the New Testament writings at the end of the first century greatly facilitated this maturation.

Share This